Marriages end, and do so nearly half the time. But when spouses are also parents together, the connection doesn't end when the divorce papers are filed. There will still be graduations, marriages and a whole array of life-changing moments to share. And beyond the big events, there are the ordinary rituals: Mother's Day, Father's Day, the first day of school, Thanksgiving—all times when good parental cooperation and planning can help kids thrive post-divorce. "You have to take the kid's perspective, not your own," advises Robert E. Emery, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia. Suppressing your natural emotional response can be a real challenge, acknowledges Emery. "In order to make it work, you have to end your relationship in a way that's emotionally unnatural. At the end of a romantic relationship, you'd normally say, 'I never want to see you again,' but when there are children, you have to contain that impulse. You have to put your emotions aside."
He offers these basic tips for divorced parents on how to make the holidays less stressful for everyone. (There's more on how to collaborate with an ex-spouse, and why it's so important, in Emery's book "The Truth about Children and Divorce" (Viking/Penguin, 2004).
1. Remember that the holidays are not all about you.
Your children deserve their celebrations even if you feel cheated out of yours. Encourage them to have a blast with their other parent, even if you can't stand the prospect of being alone.
2. Get into the spirit of the season.
This is a time of giving, forgiving and fresh starts. Turn Scrooge's emotional lessons about holidays past, present and yet to come into New Year's resolutions about letting go of anger and treasuring all you have—despite all you have lost.
3. Another lesson from Scrooge: Love means far more than money.
Your time, attention and emotional presence are much more important to your children than lavish gifts. You may be short on money but you can be long on love.
4. The holidays are not a competition with your ex, or for your children.
Teach your children the true meaning of the holidays, not the meaninglessness of materialism.
5. Communicate and coordinate with your children's other parent.
A brief e-mail, telephone message or conversation can insure that you don't duplicate presents or plan back-to-back feasts for stuffed and confused children. Ten minutes now can save days (or weeks) of fuming later. (If communicating with your ex takes more than 10 minutes, you probably are getting into issues better left for another time.)
6. Do the details.
Work out exactly where your children will be during what times—and when, where and how exchanges will take place. Your children will feel more secure, and all of you will avoid frustration and disappointment.
7. Celebrate with your children's other parent.
Consider celebrating part of the holidays together with your children's other parent, especially if your separation is fairly recent. Some people are shocked when divorced families celebrate holidays or birthdays together. Go ahead and shock them!
8. Set up a plan for next year now.
If you went through the agony of 11th-hour negotiations this year, set up a plan for next year now (or after New Year's). Everyone will be happier knowing what is coming, and avoiding conflict on the eve of the holidays.
9. Plan in advance with your extended family.
Work things out in advance with your own extended family, too, whether that means that you say no, spend the holidays a little differently than usual or ask for your family's understanding and help.
10. Establish traditions with your children.
Establish traditions with your children, even new ones that may be off-time or different from past rituals. Your kids may not remember the details of every year, but year-in, year-out traditions will stay with them for a lifetime.